Nautical Comedy Review Special: The Polar Bearings and All In The Same Boat

Margaret Paul and Stuart Bowden: first musical comedy duo on crutches to sail solo, unassisted, around the world.

Margaret Paul and Stuart Bowden: first musical comedy duo on crutches to sail solo, unassisted, around the world.

The Polar Bearings: Songs In The Sea, Major?
Starring: Margaret Paul and Stuart Bowden
Season now concluded

ratings-6

All In The Same Boat: A Ship Load Of Laughs
Starring: The Baby Seals
Appearing at: Chloe’s Bar, Young & Jackson’s Hotel, for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

ratings-7

It’s been a big festival for seafaring comedy – apart from Claudia O’Doherty’s Monster Of The Deep 3D and Nelly Thomas’s I Coulda Been A Sailor, these two group shows come at the sea from different coordinates. (Sorry about that; something about maritime-themed shows just invites really crappy wordplay.)

The Polar Bearings are firmly in the musical-theatre tradition, while the Baby Seals are an improv theatre group. If Songs In The Sea, Major? is a stage musical, All In The Same Boat is a game of Theatresports.

If I had got a boat home from Canberra rather than a stupid unreliable aeroplane, I wouldn’t have been delayed three hours and missed the performance of All In The Same Boat I’d booked, thus throwing out The Enthusiast’s planned bumper review special until after the Polar Bearings finished their MICF season. The lesson: ‘do what you oughta – head to the water’.

I was looking forward to Songs In The Sea, Major? after seeing videos of Margaret Paul and Stuart Bowden in Hark!, an a capella current-affairs project last year in Edinburgh. Their first show as the Polar Bearings was thrown out by the departure of third Bearing Tim Ross, and by the torn ligament that forced Paul to perform both the Adelaide and the Melbourne seasons on crutches. But you wouldn’t know it, because they’ve adapted well to being a crutchy twosome. (Crotchy, too, with Bowden in a truly alarming leotard.)

Riffing off not-very-ancient-at-all mariner Jessica Watson‘s round-the-world trip, the show begins with Maggie attempting her own world record voyage, only to be dragged into various undersea adventures by goofy Stu and his ukelele. Paul has the lovely, crisp voice, pert stage presence and peaches-and-cream looks that would make her a delightful Elle Woods if the Legally Blonde musical ever does hit Australia. Bowden’s a strong singer, too, although I found his hamminess irritating.

With a cardboard set, dodgy props and quirky costume additions to denote other characters, Songs has a decidedly low-res feel. Yet there’s something disconcertingly polished and stagey about it – Paul, in particular, seemed like a Broadway performer slumming it. Their songs were fun, but I got the impression the Polar Bearings were self-consciously cramming the show with ‘gags’ in order to better fit into the Comedy Festival. The banter between the pair dragged at points, and I rarely laughed out loud. Musically, though, they’re terrifically talented.

The Baby Seals: join the club.

The Baby Seals: join the club.

The Baby Seals are an assortment of eight comedians with varying backgrounds: improv, stand-up, music and even puppetry. Perhaps they rotate the All In The Same Boat cast, because the performers on the night The Enthusiast saw this show were Evan Jones, John Corry, Ryan Coffey, Scott McAteer and Simon Godfrey.

As we enter the venue, we’re handed Hawaiian leis and told we’re embarking on a cruise. Before the show begins in earnest, the genial performers – outfitted in a pastiche of nautical fashions, from stripey T-shirts, white shorts and sailor uniforms to gold-trimmed reefer jackets and captain’s hats – ask us various questions. Our responses end up providing pivotal characters and plot McGuffins.

Each show, naturally, is very different, but I was left wondering if there’s some skeletal show architecture that the actors flesh out. As is often the case with improvised theatre, some of the funniest moments came from the cast’s shambolic efforts to keep up with the unravelling plot without breaking character. The Baby Seals also throw Theatresports games into the mix: in the show I saw, Reduction (replaying a scene several times, faster each time) and Alphabet (a conversation in which every sentence begins with a consecutive letter of the alphabet).

While it’s not a particularly challenging style of comedy, it’s a lively night which delivers on its promised shipload of laughs. And the cast are certainly more nimble performers than the majority of gormless stars shoved through the Thank God You’re Here door. Standouts were Corry as a James Bond-like villain raised by a cat, and Coffey as an able seaman whose repeated bodyslams on the stage threatened to leave him a disabled seaman.

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